Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Triangle Catering, LLC (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-018-17, 25 pp.) (Louise Flanagan, J.) 5:15-cv-00016; E.D.N.C.
Holding: Where defendant’s termination of employee Michael Reddick included references to his wearing of a hat or “Rastafarian crown,” plaintiff has made out a claim for failure to accommodate; however, where plaintiff made no showing that Reddick – for the less than two days he worked for defendant – was performing his job so as to meet defendant’s expectations, plaintiff has not made out a claim of discriminatory termination.
The court grants in part and denies in part defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. On its own motion, the court dismisses plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.
When Reddick interviewed for a delivery truck driver position with the defendant-catering company, he wore no hat, nor did he mention a need to wear religious headwear. He got the job and spent the first day shadowing another employee.
When he reported to work the next day, defendant’s co-owner, Michele Aldred, told him to remove his hat. Reddick informed Aldred that he wore the hat for religious purposes and that he was Rastafarian.
According to plaintiff, Aldred sent Reddick home and told him that she and defendant’s general manager, Latisha Jenkins, needed to discuss what to do. Reddick was terminated the next day.
Motion to Strike
Plaintiff moves to strike notes prepared by EEOC Deputy Director Thomas Coclough during his interview with Reddick. The notes themselves fall within the business record exception to the hearsay rule.
With regard to Reddick’s statements in the notes, the Fourth Circuit has not addressed the issue of whether a charging party on whose behalf the EEOC brings a civil enforcement action under Title VI is an “opposing party” for purposes of Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2).
In E.E.O.C. v. Placer ARC, No. 2:13-cv-0577-KLM-EFB, 2016 WL 74032, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2016), the court reasoned that, although the charging party was not a party to the civil action, she was not an “ordinary witness but rather a ‘witness plus’ on whose statements [the defendant] should be entitled to rely … given the traditional justifications for the hearsay rule and its exclusions.” The court subscribes to this analysis and receives the interview notes into evidence.
Failure to Accommodate
The EEOC charge does not include a failure to accommodate claim. However, the notice of termination that defendant gave to Reddick mentions the exchange he had with Aldred regarding his religious need to wear a crown, so the failure to accommodate claim is reasonably related to, and developed in the reasonable investigation of, Reddick’s EEOC charge.
To establish a prima facie case for failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must adduce sufficient evidence that he (1) has a bona fide religious belief or practice that conflicts with an employment requirement and (2) the need for an accommodation of that religious belief or practice served as a motivating factor in the employer’s adverse employment action.
Defendant contends that because Reddick’s actions are inconsistent with his purported beliefs, he does not hold a bona fide religious belief. However, a sincere religious believer doesn’t forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance.
The undisputed facts show that Reddick has been a practicing Rastafarian for over 15 years. As a practicing Rastafarian, Reddick believes that “[he] must keep [his] head covered [with a turban, crown or tam].” Reddick’s practice of wearing a religious head covering conflicts with defendant’s dress code.
Plaintiff offers that Reddick did not wear his crown to his interview with defendant because “he noticed how people react[ed] to his religious crown” and feared that wearing his crown would prevent him from getting the job. Because “he had been unemployed so long,” Reddick testified that he “was willing to try anything necessary to get a job.” Consequently, resolution of whether Reddick holds a bona fide religious belief largely depends on Reddick’s credibility. Accordingly, there exists a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Reddick holds a bona fide religious belief.
The facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff establish that Reddick was sent home from work after telling Aldred about his need to wear religious head wear. According to plaintiff, at the time Aldred sent Reddick home, she told him that she and Jenkins needed to “decide what to do about [his] religious crown.”
Shortly after Reddick returned to work the next day, Jenkins decided to terminate him. Jenkins asked employee Eric Whitfield to carry the termination out. When Jenkins spoke to Whitfield about Reddick’s termination, the two discussed Reddick’s crown.
During Reddick’s termination meeting, Whitfield discussed Reddick’s religion and told Reddick that people were thrown off by the fact that Reddick did not wear a crown during his interview. Whitfield also gave Reddick a notice of termination, which states that Reddick was discharged for “the confrontational and disrespectful way in which he handled the ‘hat’ situation.” However, in her deposition, Aldred said, “Nothing about [her] conversation with [Reddick] was confrontational … [o]r disrespectful.”
Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the temporal proximity between Reddick’s interaction with Aldred and his termination, together with the notice of termination’s reference to the “hat” situation and the inconsistencies between the notice of termination and Aldred’s testimony, creates a reasonable inference that Reddick’s need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in defendant’s termination decision.
Summary judgment is not proper on plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim.
Where, as here, there is witness testimony from defendant’s employees asserting Reddick’s poor performance, plaintiff must provide some additional evidence, apart from Reddick’s own statements, to support its discriminatory discharge claim. Since plaintiff has failed to do so, the court grants defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s discriminatory discharge claim.
After defendant discharged Reddick on Dec. 6, 2013, it learned – on Sept.22, 2014 – that Reddick had a poor driving record, because of which defendant’s insurance company would not have insured Reddick to drive defendant’s company vehicles. Since this information would have resulted in Reddick’s immediate termination, plaintiff’s backpay remedy is limited to the time period from Dec. 6, 2013 to Sept. 22, 2014.
On this record, a reasonable juror could not find that, in intentionally failing to accommodate Reddick’s religious practice of wearing a crown, defendant’s decision-maker did so in the face of a perceived risk that the decision would violate federal law. Furthermore, even if Jenkins and Aldred were aware that failing to accommodate Reddick’s religious practice of wearing a crown violated federal law, a reasonable juror could conclude that defendant engaged in good faith efforts to comply with Title VII. Significantly, defendant maintains an anti-discrimination policy which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Additionally, defendant has often granted various employees’ requests for religious accommodations.
Where the record establishes that defendant has made a good-faith effort to comply with Title VII, defendant did not act with malice or reckless indifference to Reddick’s federally protected rights. For this reason, the court grants summary judgment to defendant on the issue of punitive damages.
Motions granted in part and denied in part.